Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bom dia

Junagadh is a dusty little pilgrim town to break our journey to Diu. It's the weekend and when we visit the fort on the hill there are many locals also looking around including a young Indian woman from Leicester who gives us a surprised hello. We're hardly on the tourist trail here. There are a few other interesting buildings to see and some great old arches marking the gateways of the old town, but as with many places, everything is decaying rapidly. The streets of the bazaar are full of shops selling all kinds of odds and sods. We have soda and fresh lime juice at a paan seller's stand. He is smearing large green leaves with a reddish paste of betel nut and then adding a concoction of spices for flavor, before folding it into a tidy little wad for the punter, who tucks it inside his mouth. Give it a chew and some time to mush up nicely and soon he'll be gobbing huge amounts of red liquid left, right and centre. Mmmmm, lovely.

We are sitting in a bus station waiting for our ride. A young man sits down next to Gayle. "What is your good name?" "Gayle. What's yours?" "Monty." After the usual which country stuff he points out an old man in the crowd who is wearing a white shirt that, halfway down, breaks into a pleated skirt. He is wearing earrings and chunky silver bracelets and carries a worn wooden stick with coloured bands. "That man is wearing traditional clothes", says Monty. "And why aren't you?" Gayle asks. Monty points to his jeans and t-shirt. "I am fashionable!" he declares.

There follows a week of lazy days in Diu, a small island that once was part of the Portugese territories in India. We find a dreary simple little place to stay run by dreary simple little folk, but it's cheap as chips, very quiet and hey, it's handy for the beach. The little town is small, with more decaying buildings, including some grand old Portugese houses tucked away down narrow streets. Up on the hill is a large whitewashed church, now a museum, but there are still a handful of Christian families and a few people who speak Portugese. The town seems to survive on fishing and tourism, boosted by its cheap booze - Gujarat state itself is 'dry'. So there are sometimes a few jolly Indians all drinking beer and then stumbling around on the beach. It's such a small place that within three days we have bumped into probably all the other foreign visitors here, know their hotel, travel itinerary and what they wear on the beach. Amongst them is Heather, who we first met in Ladakh and then in Udaipur. Once again she supplies us with some quality books to add to our mobile library. We also join Axel and Elke, a German couple who arrived on the same bus as us, on the beach each afternoon and in the evening for fish suppers or prawn curries. Elke spent some time studying in Bradford - a remarkable fact. We have conversations about the highs and lows of travelling in India. I had been thinking about what it was that made India such a great place to visit. It's rarely beautiful in the accepted sense, it can't be the filth or the desperate women and children who approach for money, or the consant irritating invitations to take a rickshaw or come into a shop. Perhaps it's the craziness of the streetlife, the mixture of people and faiths, or the uneven blend of First World 'progress' and Third World 'simplicity'. (For those not interested in these reflections, please look away now.) There's an incredible amount of energy and creativity here, possibly driven by poverty and an excess of people, that fascinates. But at the same time there is the large gap between rich and poor, visible every moment of every day, which repulses. It's like a fairground Hall of Mirrors distorted reflection of life in the West. Everything is more colourful, weirder, bigger, bendier, scarier and it's multiplied endlessly into infinity. As Axel observes after about two weeks of their three-week trip, it perhaps isn't the ideal place for a holiday.

Each day we walk through the streets and greet or are greeted by the locals - women sat on doorsteps in the shade, children running around in circles, men ambling along the road. On the dock, skinny barefoot fishermen unload their catch, or load up blocks of ice into polystyrene crates for their next journey. There's a permanent whiff of rotten fish about the place. And there's no hustle and bustle here. A nice long siesta in the heat of the afternoon - perhaps the longest-lasting Portugese influence. It seems a shame to leave, but our train tickets are booked.........

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